Paths Forward: Scaling the Sharing of Information and Solutions

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Follow-up to: An Unexpected Victory: Container Stacking in the Port of Long Beach

My chronicle of how Ryan managed to change the container stacking rule in the Port of Long Beach quickly became the most viewed post I’ve ever had. A lot of people were excited to spread the word about this story. This makes one think about the stretch goal, where we get to do things like this more often, potentially even creating this virtuous cycle:

  1. Identify a concrete problem.
  2. Explain the gears behind the problem.
  3. Present a solution to the problem, and explain how it would work.
  4. People notice this, and amplify the signal.
  5. Signal causes people with ability to implement solutions to notice.
  6. Solution is implemented.
  7. Victory.
  8. Except, you know, with planning and strategy involved.
  9. Every time this happens, it becomes more normal to do it again, and it becomes easier to get good solutions amplified and implemented.
  10. We get to thinking we can solve problems, and change things for the better…
    1. Including when the solutions are less and less trivial
    2. Including they require non-zero downsides or non-zero amounts of time
    3. It becomes standard to solve problems and blameworthy to not solve them.

Setting aside for now how much the rule change mattered. For this to be exciting, it must be an asymmetric weapon. Does this work for positive-sum solutions to problems without working, or working less well, for zero-sum resource grabs? 

My instinct was clearly yes, this only worked because it was obviously correct. If it had not been obviously correct, the effort fails, for overdetermined reasons. This isn’t obvious to others, and a lot of this post explores the gears involved.

Asymmetric Attention Weapons

I was highly frustrated to see this reaction, which I instinctively (if unfairly) translated as ‘actually, attempting to communicate information that might cause people to do things is bad, because the reference class is zero-sum games that compete for attention’:

It’s important to intuition pump why this is the opposite of most of the attention economy, and why such strategies are asymmetric. The information and solution both being true and important was central to the Tweetstorm’s success.

From my previous post‘s ‘I see what you did there’ list.

  1. Starts with a relatable physical story of a boat ride, and a friendly tone.
  2. Tells a (mostly manufactured) story that implies (without saying anything false) how the ride led him to figure these things out, which gives rhetorical cover to everyone else for not knowing about or talking about the problem. We can all decide to pretend this was discovered today.
  3. Then he invokes social consensus by saying that ‘everyone agrees‘ that the bottleneck is yard space. Which is true, as far as I can tell, everyone did agree on that. Which of course implies that everyone also knows there is a bottleneck, and that the port is backed up, and why this is happening. The hidden question of why no one is doing much about this is deflected by starting off pretending (to pretend?) that the boat ride uncovered the problem.
  4. Describes a clear physical problem that everyone can understand, in simple terms that everyone can understand but that doesn’t talk down to anyone. He makes this look easy. It is not easy, it is hard.
  5. Makes clear that the problem will only get worse on its own, not better, for reasons that are easy to understand.
  6. Makes clear the scope of the problem. Port of Long Beach effectively shuts down, we can’t ship stuff, potential global economic collapse. Not clear that it would be anything like that bad, but it could be.
  7. Gives a decision principle that’s simple, a good slogan and again can be understood by everyone, and that doesn’t have any obvious objections: Overwhelm the bottleneck.
  8. Gives a shovel-ready solution on how to begin to overwhelm the bottleneck, at zero cost, by allowing containers to stack more.
  9. Gives more shovel-ready solutions on top of that, so that (A) someone might go and do some of those as well, (B) someone can do the first easy thing and look like it’s some sort of compromise because they didn’t do the other things, (C) encourage others to come up with more ideas and have a conversation and actually physically think about the problem and (D) make it clear the focus is on finding solutions and solving problems, and not on which monkey gets the credit banana.
  10. Makes it clear solutions are non-rivalrous. We can do all of them, and should, but also do any one of them now.
  11. Gives a sense of urgency, and also a promise of things getting better right away. Not only can you act today, Sir, you are blameworthy tomorrow if you do not act, and you will see results and rewards tomorrow if you do act. Not only reactions to the announcements, physical results on the ground. That’s powerful stuff.
  12. Ends by noting that leadership is what is missing. You could be leadership and demonstrate you’re a good leader, or you can not do that and demonstrate the opposite. Whoever solves this is the leader.

It’s also worth flagging now that the people who amplified the Tweetstorm and made it succeed were not random Twitter users, but rather mostly belonged to the set of people who often care about the gears of physical models, who are more likely to respond in stronger fashion to many of these asymmetries. More on that in the section The Multilevel Signal Amplifier.

The Boat Ride

At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the boat ride. It was more than a relatable and friendly story. The boat ride showed that Ryan was thinking about the real problem and looking for a real solution. That he was problem solving. 

This was an asymmetric costly signal. Ryan had to spend time and money renting a boat and taking a three hour tour. It’s asymmetric because those seeking truth gain knowledge, and others… get to say they’re on a boat

Imitators will get this wrong. 

If you’re trying to explain a physical problem and how you know about it, and chart a physical solution, you can think like a person thinking about physical problems and realize that seeing the problem yourself via this particular boat ride is a good idea. 

If you’re drumming up attention for other reasons, you won’t think like that. Your attempt to think of ‘something like Ryan’s boat ride’ will be incongruent searching for a physical solution. It won’t resonate. 

Was the boat ride designed to sell the Tweetstorm? Probably. But it wouldn’t have worked if the problem and solution were fake.

This cycles back into the ‘people don’t do things’ principle. Especially real physical things. People don’t take boat rides. You can say ‘well then if boat rides work everyone will start taking boat rides’ but no, mostly they won’t do that. 

Think about Duncan’s story above about renting a billboard to get a job…

Back to the Tweetstorm

In the third step, Ryan invokes social consensus. This worked, and it was important that this worked. If threads had been full of people disputing this, the whole thing would have gone down much differently, whether it was true or not. 

The fourth step is crucial. The question is whether it is asymmetric in a good way. I think the answer is mostly a clear yes. If you are forced to have and present a gears-level physical model (e.g. the containers are sitting on the trucks because there’s nowhere for them to go) then that’s going to be pretty good at differentiating accurate versus inaccurate models. It’s also going to force you to communicate information about the physical world and how you understand it. To the extent that Ryan’s explanation was inaccurate or simplified, there have been comments that have pointed that out, allowing all involved to build a better physical model. Whereas there’s no other surface area worth attacking. Describing things simply and understandably is a good test for whether you understand them, and are trying to present an accurate model.

Points five and six asymmetrically favor problems worthy of attention over those less worthy.

Point seven invokes a strong general principle. This isn’t foolproof and other things are also happening, but promoting strategies that use strong general principles of physical problem solving over those that don’t seems good.

Point eight is a concrete shovel-ready solution. There are already vast forces favoring easy solutions that are shovel-ready over hard solutions and those that aren’t shovel-ready. If ‘you don’t have a shovel-ready solution so I’m not going to pay you any mind’ that’s a huge obstacle. It isn’t always possible to hill climb your way to victory, and there’s the worry that this will favor ‘do this symbolic gesture’ style calls to action. Yet there are advantages, especially together with ‘concrete physical model’ requirements to this vector, which act against purely symbolic actions. 

Open for Business

A good contrast point is the initiative to ‘keep the ports running 24/7.’ There is a clear and simple bottleneck, time. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Why not operate the port and trucks around the clock? 

The obvious first answer is some combination of ‘lack of qualified workers,’ ‘unwillingness to pay what it would take to hire those workers’ and ‘dock workers unions in California, haha, good luck.’ Clock time is unlikely to be the current bottleneck. 

The LA Times post discussed below notes that many daytime pickup slots are going unused because of other bottlenecks, and nighttime slots where available mostly go unused. So while many terminals aren’t operating at night, there’s little reason to expect 24/7 operations would help much short term. 

Something that naively looks like a shovel-ready simple physical proposal, to keep the port open longer, turns out to be missing gears.

White House officials said “port operators” will be responsible for paying the longshoremen and actually keeping the ports open longer hours.

And also this:

Among them, a pandemic-related surge in demand for durable goods in the United States, an outdated domestic freight and rail system, factory shutdowns in places like China and Vietnam, and a shortage of skilled longshoremen on the West Coast.

There are ways to unlock additional skilled labor, including at odd hours. They involve paying a lot more money than anyone’s yet willing to pay.

Keeping ports open longer so at least some operations happen at night seems reasonable. With time other bottlenecks can respond. Stakes are high, so throw everything you have at the problem. 

My sense is ‘keep the ports open 24/7’ passes some of the Ryan Tests, but fails others, and emerged from an importantly different process where one must Do Something and various people looked for Bold Actions, and found an unusually plausibly useful one. Which can be a bug rather than a feature, since it might mean you want to solve physical problems and thus have questionable motivations and loyalties. Here, it might hit the sweet spot of getting credit for plausibility while being noticeably insufficiently implemented to work. A winner on all fronts, except solving the problem.

Points nine and ten are great. The more non-rivalrous actions are possible, the more of them you raise, and the more useful information you share, the better. I don’t know that they made much difference here, but to the extent they helped this is usefully asymmetric. It’s a good test. If you’re on top of a complex physical situation, you should generally be able to suggest multiple worthwhile actions, because there’s so much low hanging fruit.

Giving a sense of urgency is on the scarier side of the list on this front. It reinforces worries about favoring things that show results in the very short term (e.g. tomorrow, or at most the two-week blame time horizon). The false negatives, where things are too slow or complex to count, are highly unfortunate, but it’s an excellent bullshit filter to avoid false positives. There’s a concrete hypothesis: that this will reduce the number of ships waiting to use the port. Either that happens or it doesn’t. 

A Question of Leadership and Reference Classes

The leadership trick is mostly symmetrical for different actions, but favors action over inaction. Is that good?

That depends on the reference class, so it’s complicated. 

If the reference class is ‘person does thing’, then it’s not only good, it’s great. People don’t do things. They should do more things. Getting person to do a physical useful thing is by default amazingly great. 

If the reference class is ‘lifting a restriction on person doing thing’ then yeah, that might be even better. There’s Chesterson’s Fence to worry about, as the restriction was put there by someone and there might have been a good reason, so you should understand how that happened, but there’s a lot of strong positive selection here. Lifting a random restriction that exists in life is probably not a good idea in isolation, although it wouldn’t shock me if I was wrong about that. Lifting a restriction that doesn’t seem to be physically accomplishing anything and is plausibly a bottleneck to important action, that you actually manage to and choose to change, is another matter. Given all the biases against actions, including the action of lifting the restriction, I’m happy to say that it was probably a good idea on the margin, especially in cases where the market test for costs versus benefits is ‘yes, do that, not remotely close.’ 

Again, this is complicated, and many people have opposite intuitions. And if we introduced a way for people to get any restriction lifted that they don’t like, that can go bad in any number of obvious ways. 

If the reference class is ‘things that look like bold leadership’ then that’s a little less obvious. A lot of very negative things look like bold leadership, but so do most very positive things. One wants to be able to count on system design or various feedback systems to rule out or discourage enough of the sufficiently negative things here.

If the reference class is ‘impose a new restrictive rule’ then that’s not a great reference class and I’d be skeptical of encouraging such things, especially if the rule discourages or prevents action, or tells those taking action they can only do actions that include features we like in ways that make doing the thing less attractive. That tends to go badly. 

My model counts on various systems to be asymmetrical. It thinks things that have big downsides or costs, or wouldn’t work, or don’t come with accurate physical models attached, face more objections and resistance when using these channels. I both believe this to be true now, and I believe it is something we can and need to work to keep true and to make more true going forward. 

The Multilevel Signal Amplifier

It’s worth looking at who amplified the signal. Mainstream sources didn’t notice anything, but my Twitter feed was full of references to the thread, and I picked up on it at least four or five times. It was a lot of people in the types of circles that me and people reading this type of post tend to follow. In particular, it was the exact people who respond to physical models and arguments at least somewhat. I did not amplify it myself, because my bar for amplifying anything on Twitter is super high and I didn’t see this as something that would work, which hopefully I will fix in the future. 

I am confident that many of these particular people were reading the thread critically and thinking for themselves about the problem. These particular amplifiers were most certainly asymmetric, and wouldn’t have cooperated if this hadn’t had its key characteristics, including that the story and solution made sense. 

Earlier this year, I proposed a model of sense-making, information flow and action, which I’ll fully restate here.

  1. There are Level-1 people who are sufficiently above the sanity waterline that they can synthesize information and come up with new models and new solutions and write them up.
  2. Then the other Level-1 people and also the Level-2 people evaluate it and decide whether it’s worth passing along – Level-2 people aren’t good enough to generate wholly new stuff, but are good enough to sort through the proposals and often add important details and refinements, point out mistakes and so on.
  3. Then the Level-3 people look at the results of that Level-2 process, and send the message out more broadly, including to the public.

Number of levels here is arbitrary, but the point remains. The hope is that this could provide an alternative sense-making operation to existing story-generation operations that operate on different principles that don’t primarily aim to track the physical world. 

Within that system, we can model Ryan as a Level-1 player who also presented strategically, coordinating with other high-level players in this alternate informal structure to craft and amplify the signal to maximize the chances of persuasion and action. This still requires using the model-first informal structures of this cluster, and passing its tests requiring things to make sense. The big difference was that it was coordinated and planned, and that it included the people who ‘have day jobs’ and spend most of their time doing stuff rather than spreading signals. Getting them to help is not easy, and very much depends on the contents of the signal. And the fact that this worked and caused change is a data point that these systems can in the right circumstances wield power.

It makes sense both to understand what the required circumstances are and how to make them happen, and then to actually use them when the opportunity arises. 

Long Beach Logistics Dive

This seems to finally be a good write-up of what happened, from the LA Times. It makes it clear that yes, the Twitter thread and the forwarding thereof was causal. The question is how much change was caused.

In Long Beach itself, the message came through loud and clear. Friends had tagged Mayor Robert Garcia on the thread, and he forwarded it to his staff. By the end of the day, the city had lifted the restriction on stacking the 9-foot-tall containers only two high, and now capped it at four.

“Within a few hours we had all decided that we had to make this change immediately,” Garcia said. The relaxed rules are in effect for 90 days, and only apply to businesses that were already zoned for storing containers.

“If you are in a neighborhood, you don’t want to look out your front yard and see five- or six-stacked-high cargo containers. It is a blight and environmental justice issue, no question there,” Garcia said. But with the holiday season and piles of dockside containers looming large, he thought it was worth a shot.

The NIBMYs should not exactly be running scared of what might come next. Also:

The real issue, Schrap says, is just that the shipping companies won’t take their empty containers back: “The ocean carriers need to come sweep out the empties.” Adding insult to injury, the ocean carriers bill truckers a late fee every day for unreturned empty containers, Schrap said, even if they won’t accept them at the port. “It makes you want to pick up your laptop and Frisbee it out into the backyard,” Schrap said. “That’s the frustration running through our veins.”

The impact of this shift, however, is difficult to measure. The change only applies to yards within the city of Long Beach that weren’t already zoned for higher stacking levels, which had long been in effect in the industrial zone closest to the port. More than 240,000 containers are currently waiting on the docks, with an additional 500,000-plus sitting on the ships offshore.

The chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Assn., which represents the trucking companies dealing with these issues every day, says that any little bit helps, but the measure doesn’t change all that much. For one thing, allowing the stacks to climb higher doesn’t guarantee they’ll do so.

Lisa Wan, director of operations at the trucking firm RoadEx America, said that the firm ordered a top loader specifically to be able to move and stack containers months ago — but delivery delays meant it won’t show up until next week.

“We’re lucky we’re getting it at all, so we don’t complain,” Wan said. Once that arrives, the firm will be able to stack 20 to 30 empty containers in its yard, freeing up chassis for more pickups at the ports.

Details in logistics matter. Other changes plausibly matter more than the stacking rule. One thing mentioned is that drop-off windows for empty containers are being widened, which allows trucks to schedule the drop-off first then pick up a full container, without which neither can happen. 

Meanwhile, the Port of Los Angeles is continuing to say no to extra stacking ‘out of concern for residents’ and it seems you can’t make them, or at least no one has succeeded and no one seems to be trying. So in terms of follow-up, we can’t even get this particular free rule changed in one of the two ports in question. Global supply chains are no match for ‘this might not look pretty.’ 

The good news is that we’re seeing other alternative efforts.

But other measures — not mentioned in Petersen’s thread — are going into effect. The Port of Los Angeles and Buscaino’s office are working to open 12 lots in and around the terminals that could store up to 30,000 containers, and the Port of Long Beach has already expanded its temporary storage yards to store 12,000 containers.

‘Working to open’ is not the same as opening, so we’ll see how far that goes and how fast, but it shows momentum behind finding more storage capacity. My model says that focusing attention on the problem of storage capacity, in any form, opens up the possibility of other physical solutions. 

Petersen, for his part, said he was gratified by the response to his tweet thread, even if policymakers are finding different solutions. 

That’s exactly the thing. Peterson directed attention towards a physical problem, and its physical solutions. Despite this, it’s still non-trivial to figure out whether the situation at the ports is improving or not.

Other times, the solution is as simple as ‘highlight an obvious and easy to fix problem and the solution will appear’ and this presumably is a clear example of Using One’s Power For Good, whether or not it was the most efficient option available:

This, while a trivial example, seems like an excellent system for getting at least some $@*t fixed. A lot of the time all it takes is the right person’s attention in the right place, combined with the incentive of others paying attention to whether the job gets done. Not sure how well it scales, but it’s a start, and I predict it would cause people to follow and read Ryan more often and thus enhance the ability to do the big things when it matters, rather than detract, if curation was good. 

No New Taxes

The other mentioned solution was a fee imposed on containers, paid for by shipping companies, that escalates daily until the problem is solved. There are scenarios where this is an excellent idea, and those where it’s a deeply stupid one, so which will it be? Ryan definitely has some thoughts on that, and on some other issues as well. Let’s see what else he’s been up to, starting with his thoughts on the fee. I’ll put his correction at the top for clarity, which changes the timeline but not the core situation.

Ryan’s model of the fee is that it works like this.

  1. Containers are stuck.
  2. Everyone involved would love to unstick the containers.
  3. But they can’t.
  4. City government imposes a fee for not unsticking the containers.
  5. Containers don’t move any faster, because they can’t.
  6. Fee is paid by shipping companies and charged to businesses.
  7. Businesses pass the fee on to customers, raising prices.
  8. Effectively, the cities have imposed a tariff on imports, stealing money from the rest of the country in ways that wreak havoc.
  9. This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some companies, forcing them under.

This is certainly part of the story, but it isn’t obviously the whole story. The core assumption is that companies trying to ship don’t have any options besides giving up or continuing to wait, at least over any time frame that matters, preventing them from responding to the price signal. It also implies that some companies giving up on getting their stuff unloaded would be bad in this situation.

I’d question both of those assumptions, starting with the second one. Suppose we have the ability to unload X ships worth of containers each day, but there is X+Y ships worth of demand for imported goods, so the backlog gets longer each day. You’d want the least valuable goods to give up their slots for the more valuable goods until this balances. By charging a fee on delays, we presumably cause some number of ships with less profitable cargo to give up or reroute.

The second option is to reroute. I don’t know the extent to which this is short-term feasible, and there are certainly large costs involved in redoing all the logistics, but I do see enough people pointing out capacity elsewhere that it seems likely a sufficiently large price incentive would cause some ships to use other ports. We very much want them to use other ports.

The tax scales rapidly with the length of delays, which seems good. If there are long enough delays, it forces the issue, making it more valuable to abandon cargo than to use the port. But there’s basically no scenario where this reduces throughput of the port, because the moment the port is below capacity the tax goes away. 

In general, taxing deadweight losses, and other things one wants to see less of, is a good idea. So I see it potentially working more like this.

  1. Lots of people want to use the port.
  2. But they can’t, not all at once, and things get backed up.
  3. Thus they all sit around.
  4. If you raise the price to use the port when it’s backed up, some people will stop trying to use the port.
  5. Thus making the port easier to use. Efficient allocation of resources.

Which of these two stories dominates is something I don’t know. However there’s definitely an additional problem, which is that the fees are going to the city. That’s a transfer from everyone else to the city, as the port ‘holds up’ the country to capture more of the value of shipping, and this encourages charging fees that are too high, whether or not the correct fee is higher than zero. With 40% of the shipping into America coming through LA and Long Beach, they have a lot of market power here, and once they start using it to make money there is a great temptation not to stop. Thus, it seems imperative to ensure that any fees charged make it to the federal coffers, or at least go towards expanding capacity and functionality at the ports (perhaps in the short term by hiring more small boats and more work crews to make things move faster), rather than staying with the city as profits. 

I’ve also seen the claim that this doesn’t include empty containers due to a technicality, which would be quite the mistake if true. 

I note that I do not see much amplification of the ‘don’t tax us for something out of our control’ proposal. It didn’t pass the tests. I’m amplifying it here because it’s worth thinking about on various levels, but I’m not endorsing the request because I’m not convinced he is right. 

Root Causes

It’s also worth noticing Ryan’s pinned tweet

It goes on a lot longer than that, but you get the idea. It’s all very traditional at this point.

Thus, it is traditional to go back and forth on this question, with various people pointing out in sequence:

  1. How awful is the pursuit of short term metrics that strip all the slack and resilience out of everything.
  2. That there are plenty of long term bets, such as Amazon and Tesla, with plenty of unprofitable companies having super high valuations on the basis of their potentials, and that if anything Wall Street is too long term if you look at it the right way and so is venture.
  3. That this too is short term metrics. That what’s going on is the response to metrics that indicate growth, rather than response to what drives long term success. Which in turn means that long term success is determined by showing those growth metrics, because this allows for vastly better fundraising and thus better long term success, which is a much, much better vector than actually preparing for the future and being resilient and making sure to match physical reality.
  4. The cycle continues.

Mostly I take Ryan’s side in all that. My experience trying to raise funds, and looking at what determines valuations, and in balancing maximizing valuation versus maximizing what’s otherwise good for the business, leads me strongly towards the primary effects being short term thinking and hardcore Goodhart’s Law action to maximize the metrics you expect people to care about and the questions that will come up when people do highly shallow investigations or hold pitch meetings. Yes, sometimes the story in question is one of long term potential and growth, but that doesn’t actually change the mechanisms, it simply changes what type of ‘returns’ on what type of investments are being measured and judged. 

I don’t want to get into comment discussions of that, however, or make an attempt to prove the point at this time, because it’s a super deep rabbit hole with no end, so I’ll endorse the view but not claim to have properly ‘made the case.’ Note of course that this is the opposite of a shovel-ready physical solution to a physical problem. Ryan has no solution, because this is a different kind of problem with no easy solutions, even if he’s right. The best solution I know about is ‘keep founders in control and ensure they don’t need to care about valuations or raising money’ but that only raises further questions, and so on. 

There’s also a need for balance. We should have been more ready than we were, and we should be dealing better with the situation we do have. But being completely ready for everything is overkill. Should we be able to keep up with a hundred year surge in demand?

I’d argue that the answer is pretty much no, we shouldn’t. 

What’s happening now, at a fundamental level, is that we want more stuff and we want it now, and we mostly can make the additional stuff but we can’t ship all the available stuff at once because we’re out of capacity. The good news is that the stuff we want isn’t a life-or-death situation and it wouldn’t be some great tragedy if our amount of imported stuff was the same as it was a few years ago. We want more stuff and we want it now because we have more spending power with which to buy stuff and less alternative ways to spend money and time, so we’d like to have more stuff, but it’s not as if we need this stuff. We want it. Thus, allocation by price is appropriate, and it’s not fun to deal with that, but it’s a cost like any other. 

If you are considering whether to be ready for such a surge in demand, you need to multiply the gains to being prepared by the probability that it happens and compare it to the cost. I’m not at all confident that the companies involved here made any mistakes. The real bottlenecks here are the ports and the trucks. You can hold some extra inventory or what not, but that only buys you so much time and so much profit, and from what I know of trucking (mostly from the Odd Lots podcast) getting more capacity there for the long run doesn’t even make much sense as a concept. So it’s mostly on the ports and maybe the railroads, which is much closer to a public choice problem than a market capital allocation problem.

Bottleneck Tennis

It’s also worth noticing Ryan’s previous Tweetstorm from October 20, when he got the dock workers a Taco Truck. This one seems like it was likely a template for the boat ride, and seems more likely to have been a real source of information. It was also public relations on multiple fronts, but in a good way. 

The biggest insight in that previous storm that didn’t end up in the later storm is about the ports being open late but no one coming in at night, and there not being any way to quickly scale up skilled labor, and there being tons of no-shows by trucks so appointments are ‘full’ but still not many trucks are involved. 

This likely interacts with the problem of empty containers, where trucks make appointments and then can’t keep the appointment because they’re stuck with empty containers they can’t unload. 

This also points to another bottleneck, which is that if you believe the account here, the appointment system seems clearly to be broken. If there are lots of no-shows for appointments with no way to have someone else pick up the slack when they don’t show, then the system requires a redesign, or the incentives involved need to change. I don’t have the expertise to know the right answers, but it does seem like ‘charge a fee when appointments are missed and pay those fees to those who keep their appointments’ would be a good first proposal, and you could go from there. Chances are the important bottlenecks mostly lie elsewhere.

This account from a trucker seems like another great example of concrete physical information about physical problems. It emphasizes the bottleneck nature of the situation, where solving one issue often won’t help much. There are several places listed where capacity will have to increase, and where that would mean much higher labor costs. 

The bottleneck that stuck out to me was getting trucks in and out of the port. The trucks, by this account, need to be in three lines in order to pick up a container, because there’s multiple places with limited throughput, resulting in hours lost on each trip. I’m not Ryan and thus don’t have a concrete path to solving the issue, but it seems like it should be possible to speed up the act of entering or leaving the port by expanding the number of lines available for trucks to go through? And in such situations, once you cross a threshold, there stops being a line, which in turn would dramatically increase the number of trips each truck could make, and allow us to move to the next bottleneck? 

Where To Next?

There are two fronts to consider. There’s the supply chain issues, and there’s the more general project of getting things to happen.

In terms of the supply chain problems, it seems clear that Ryan noticeably improved the situation, but the situation is far from solved. Solving it will be a long term process, and we’ll be playing bottleneck tennis as solving one problem highlights others and makes them worse. 

There’s still lots of low-hanging fruit on the logistics front, starting with Ryan’s change only being implemented in Long Beach and not Los Angeles. There’s also signs of other solutions starting to come online, and that could be helped along in terms of making it shovel-ready and finding the right physical solutions. 

The whole thing makes me want to take up logistics. It’s high stakes, fascinating stuff where there’s high returns for actually solving problems properly. No idea if that’s one of the right lessons, or not. There’s certainly a price that would make it happen.

Then there’s the question of using this method again in the future. I hope I have laid out here a strong case that the methods of amplification used by Ryan can be deliberately invoked again in the future, and that they do a good job of asymmetrically selecting what things to amplify, with useful and accurate messages favored over less useful and less accurate ones. That’s never going to be the whole story, but overall I am optimistic on these fronts. Although, by default, people don’t do things, so there won’t be that many more attempts to use the system, and what attempts there are won’t be optimized as much as Ryan’s was. 

Participating in the amplification system in a way that helps maximize its levels of asymmetry, and that improves the quality of the things you move forward, is available to essentially anyone reading this. You might not be a Level-1 player capable of generating new models and solutions, but if you got this far you are definitely at least a potential Level-3 player who can evaluate the signals being amplified, provide error correction and decide whether to amplify them further, and reward those who are doing higher level model and solution generation and information sharing.

The best thing to do here, of course, is to go out and look for physical problems, find and share information about what’s wrong, and look for possible solutions. Especially good are solutions that pass the Ryan Tests, that are shovel ready, can be implemented by a single authority or other agent, and that would show clear results that can be measured and tested, especially without any serious downsides or losers, but not all of that is required to become worthwhile. 

Then, if there is something that checks enough of the boxes, it’s time to be deliberate, and focus on winning and being persuasive, via the amplification channels and telling a convincing story when the payloads reach their destinations. Which, in turn, builds additional momentum, and the cycle can continue.

The other best thing is to help refine and improve the models and information presented here, but it feels like the default failure mode to focus too much on that and not enough on continuing the work. When in doubt, do more of the work, generate more data and more examples, and learn by doing. 

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The other best thing is to help refine and improve the models and information presented here, but it feels like the default failure mode to focus too much on that and not enough on continuing the work.

That's definitely a failure mode that exists, but I'm not worried about it here, relative to incorrect models. A short list of things I think we need to nail down before concluding this was a success:

  • People raised serious questions on the previous thread that you haven't responded to
  • I'm kind of shocked to see "they mayor said so" cited as conclusive evidence that a government official acted based on nothing but public outcry, in less than one workday.  At a minimum we should expect shipping executives to have raised this issue with the city ahead of time, because of strong incentives to do so.
  • It's been 10 days it's unclear if the backlog has improved? It's very hard to get data on this- Marinetraffic.com either aggregates by week or doesn't break out cargo ships, which are a small percentage of Long Beach's work work, but
    • This article from 10/20 lists "over a hundred" waiting ships
    • The tweet on 10/22 lists 70 waiting ships (but that might be Long Beach only)
    • This article lists 153 waiting ships as of 10/29 (7 days after the tweet)
    • This article lists ~70 waiting ships as of 11/2. That might be big progress, or an inconsistency in definitions. And of course, throughput could increase while keeping backlog the same as ships redirect from other ports.  And even then, this wasn't the only change made in the last month.

 

I'm all in favor of doing more things and iterating rather than waiting for perfection, but it really seems like we have not squeezed nearly the learning we could out of this one.

Marine Exchange Facebook page has graphs of "container ships at anchor or loitering" for Los Angeles + Long Beach combined. It has been relatively flat in the 70s since mid-October, with an early November dip followed by a bounceback. The peak of 80 was on Oct 24, the current (Nov 8) is 77.

Port of Los Angeles has its own data (current pdf) with POLA Vessels at Anchor; it's the "historical container vessel activity" which you can get from this page by clicking on the picture that says "Working Container Vessels". It shows a peak of 40ish from Oct 19-29, which then dropped to 30ish, but is back up to 40 now (Nov 8).

Port of Long Beach has this page listing the container vessels at anchor there. It currently (Nov 9) lists 43 vessels. I can't find historical data except through internet archive; the most recent archived page shows 31 vessels as of Oct 8.

If I gave the impression that I don't support additional learning and investigation then I apologize. That was most certainly not my intention. It was more that my default model of what happens is 'some analysis then basically nothing' and that seems like the most likely failure mode in worlds where making this work is feasible.

To address the question of the backlog, if I wasn't clear, I too was unable to find good evidence of the number of ships waiting and how that changed from day to day. I did see claims it had improved somewhat but it's all confused. 

I tried to make it clear here that I am confident it was, in that previous comment's terms, 'a first step' and did at least some good, but that I'm not confident on magnitude. Which, as again I tried to say, I still think is good enough.

I am confused why you think this is good enough, and would like to understand why.  I look at the situation and see several extremely important cruxes that are not yet satisfied. I've specified some of those cruxes above, albeit not super rigorously and I can't promise they're exhaustive.

I think I get the failure mode you're worried about here- that comments like mine will raise the friction of doing anything so high that nothing is even attempted, and it's more important to try more things and learn from them than to nail down any particular one. There are versions of that I would very strongly agree with. But I don't think trying things with the level of rigor and intentionality shown in this post and the last one will generate good data. At best it's measuring the ability of charisma and emotion to compel action, which is a symmetric weapon, but I don't think it even does that if you don't check the causality chain (as stated above, I don't consider the mayor telling a newspaper he acted in response to constituent demand to be strong evidence, when it's not even clear it was his decision. I'm surprised you do and it might be worth exploring why).

I'm inclined to offer a bounty for evidence about what caused the change in rules (including nailing down whose decision it actually was). Before I do that, I want to check if this is cruxy for you/if there is information on this specific link that would change your overall beliefs. It might also be worth making a bet on this, although having one of the bet participants administer the information bounty feels suspect.

I'm not worried about you administering the bounty, that seems fine and good and I'd trust you to honestly evaluate the bet at the size range I'd expect it to be. If it was big enough to be 'real money' we'd need to use better procedures but I'm assuming that's not the case here.

I'd also note that if I was provided a 'bounty fund' I would at least experiment with using it more generally. Might be a good idea.

If you propose a bet, then I might or might not accept depending on odds, size and terms, I don't feel it is necessary but have no objection.

There are two distinct questions here where you're questioning things, as I understand you. 

  1. You are questioning whether X -> Y, where X = Tweetstorm/Ryan and Y = change in LB stacking rule. We have the timing, and we have the explicit word of the person who made the change. Both seem like strong evidence to me. We also have that the storm was unique in the ways I've described, and in ways that reflect a desire to cut the enemy that seems unmistakable and rare to me. Yes, it is possible that it wasn't causal, but this seems heroic and unlikely. It either has to be a coincidence followed by a decision to lie, or the Tweetstorm was timed to give cover to a decision already made. I don't know what evidence you'd gather here or what bet you'd want to make, but this seems very much like an isolated demand for rigor to me if it's more than being curious to explore more to verify/expand the model, which seems fine.
  2. You are questioning Y -> Z, where Y = stacking rule and Z = conditions at the port. Here I'm not sure how far apart we are. I'm saying that as long as (1 above) Ryan was causal in making the change, (2) the stacking rule improved conditions in the port somewhat with no downsides that matter, that's enough for me to think of this as a template. It's a bottleneck situation, so improving one bottleneck might or might not have a huge impact on the condition of the port, and it was rapidly getting worse (from all reports I know about) before the change. The scale of cost of effort versus impact of port conditions is many zeroes. And to me what matters is the template working to execute a good idea - if it didn't 'save the economy' then that's fine, never really thought this alone did it. Especially when it was only at LB and not LA! Which loses us more than half the effect. Also, my mechanism for why this matters largely involves 'momentum builds towards both more physical actions to improve the ports, and more efforts to discover, communicate, amplify and use information, models and solutions for physical problems and places where we can improve' and for that purpose the threshold of actual effect here is definitely cleared by a moderate improvement.    
  3. Others have raised cruxes regarding whether trying to create or use information sharing and attention direction vectors is a good idea for strategic reasons, I don't know if you share this concern or not but it's a distinct discussion and would require additional posts to fully address. Don't think this could be settled by more data gathering, it's a different kind of thing.
  4. Something else?

Do I want to know magnitude of effect? Of course, and I am happy that you're considering sending out a bounty to find out. I'd also love better access to better metrics on what's going on at the ports in general even if we can't create change. 

Anyway, I offer to escalate to video call when timing allows, if that's something you're interested in. 

Note: have emailed Zvi + Eli Tyre to arrange double cruxing out of band.

The whole thing makes me want to take up logistics. It’s high stakes, fascinating stuff where there’s high returns for actually solving problems properly.

I strongly endorse this. On LessWrong I see a reasonable awareness of communications and finance, but virtually none of logistics, and it is the third element that makes up the global economy. It is a tremendous torrent of object-level problems, and even introductory knowledge makes lots of other things much clearer. For example, military things make no sense sans logistics. But I don't know anything about commercial logistics, so I would be excited to explore the object level question of how stuff moves from A to B here.

Otherwise, any recommendations for learning about logistics? This is also an opportunity for someone to write a logistics sequence.

In the military case, I strongly recommend Supplying War by Martin van Creveld. It is a history, but systematically demolishes popular misconceptions about how supplies work in the military. It also completely changed my perspective of several important events, foremost among them Napoleon's invasion of Russia and Operation Overlord in WWII.

Otherwise, I think that logistics is mostly divided up on the private side into different specializations by industry. For using the existing logistical infrastructure to manage supply, there is Supply Chain Management; international shipping and the railways are their own specializations; I suspect that things like building truckyards is actually a subtask of owning a trucking company more than anything else.

This calls for a high-level survey of the field, I think. Putting it on the TODO.

Some people like Alex Tabarrok and Zeynep Tufekci were writing on covid in a similar style to Ryan Petersen. The US government did eventually wind up adopting some of their sensible recommendations, but it's hard to track causality since there were more people talking & longer delays before government action.

"However there’s definitely an additional problem, which is that the fees are going to the city."

Money which the city could presumably use to purchase scarce and vital longshoreman labor.

The city is getting a windfall because it owns a scarce resource. Would you consider this a problem if the port were privately owned?

What Ryan is calling punishment is just an ECON 101 cost increase.

It's what's called a hold-up problem. LA+LB together are 40% of shipping, so they have a ton of pricing power even medium-term, and short-term they can effectively take more than all of your profits because the alternative is even worse. The cities could extract a substantial percentage of the value of international shipping, but the deadweight loss triangle involved would be gigantic, and the cost pass-through might destabilize the entire economy if they got too aggressive. Yes, you want to do enough of this to allocate via price, but there's the temptation to do far more than that in order to transfer wealth. 

If the money is being used to improve the port, then I think I explicitly note that I'm fine with that, and I'm noting that I mostly disagree with Ryan on the fees being bad - I simply want the fees not to create incentives for the city that go against the public good. 

If it was a privately owned port, it would be a different situation in many ways, and hopefully long term enterprise value would keep the port doing mostly the right things if it was truly private (and also it would have been made much more efficient by now and be implementing all these solutions!) but anything that big with this kind of leverage that was privately owned in 2021 is effectively not so private. 

It’s also worth flagging now that the people who amplified the Tweetstorm and made it succeed were not random Twitter users, but rather mostly belonged to the set of people who often care about the gears of physical models, who are more likely to respond in stronger fashion to many of these asymmetries. More on that in the section The Multilevel Signal Amplifier.

I'd say wide viewing is usually based around 'random Twitter users' sharing it, and that's arguably why things like this are important:

1. Starts with a relatable physical story of a boat ride, and a friendly tone.

And a lot of other things on that list.


This was an asymmetric costly signal. Ryan had to spend time and money renting a boat and taking a three hour tour. It’s asymmetric because those seeking truth gain knowledge, and others… get to say they’re on a boat

Eh. If everything's slow because everything's bottlenecked, arguably the comparative cost is lower. (You noted last time that he experienced benefits of fixing this problem.)


This cycles back into the ‘people don’t do things’ principle. Especially real physical things.

True. Though, what is the cost? (The boat? The billboard?)


Points five and six asymmetrically favor problems worthy of attention over those less worthy.

True. Though, this might also have relative elements. If more stuff is going wrong attention might be more divided. And yet, if there's a bottle neck slowing down shipping, more people might have time because they're waiting.


Yet there are advantages, especially together with ‘concrete physical model’ requirements to this vector, which act against purely symbolic actions. 

If we lived in a world where 'purely symbolic action' included 'the containers can be stacked higher, so that doesn't become a bottleneck' that would also be good, if not as good as people looking for the source of the problem and fixing it. (If there's another shipping problem, it might not always be the solution.)


Lifting a random restriction that exists in life is probably not a good idea in isolation, although it wouldn’t shock me if I was wrong about that.

Another case for UBI. (Though, reasonably, it isn't a random restriction.)


I did not amplify it myself, because my bar for amplifying anything on Twitter is super high and I didn’t see this as something that would work, which hopefully I will fix in the future. 

I notice this is a discrete channel, rather than a continuous one.


Should we be able to keep up with a hundred year surge in demand?
I’d argue that the answer is pretty much no, we shouldn’t. 

Having rules change in response to such a thing might be a good idea though. Like the stacking restriction.


I didn't have much to say about stuff after that. It's a great article.

I have a very bad feeling that we may be headed for a period of rationing essential goods at the national level.

I have the same feeling - the current social consensus seems to have shifted away from using a price system to ration things (while re-prioritizing production).  Which means that limits get imposed by political or luck-based mechanisms.

I don't have a problem with price-based rationing, as long as the people on the left who would normally be my allies refrain from shaming people for "hoarding" stuff. Or opportunistically price gouging, for that matter. Full confession: in the early days of the pandemic I bought toilet paper on eBay for a tidy sum. I was earning good money putting in lots of overtime at NYS call centers.

Obvious next step: if there's a lot of low hanging fruit like this, let's find it? Have you considered using your LW/Twitter/blog to publicly solicit obvious, simple, and high leverage solutions to other big problems?

I am confused; what do you imagine this series of posts is doing?

I just plus two'd ya

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